A World Without Time: The Forgotten Legacy of Go¨del and Einstein

Basic Books
New York
, 2005. $24.00 (210 pp.). ISBN 0-465-09293-4

During the World Year of Physics 2005, hundreds of authors couldn’t resist using the golden recipe “Albert Einstein and X” to publish yet another book on their pet subject of X. Unfortunately, Palle Yourgrau, a philosopher at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, and an acknowledged expert on Kurt Gödel, is no exception with his A World Without Time: The Forgotten Legacy of Gödel and Einstein.

Everyone has been trying to make a buck during this celebratory year. True, Einstein and Gödel both stayed at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, and because Einstein did not like to speak English, he naturally turned to his Austrian-born colleague and shared walks and conversations with him. But Yourgrau blows that contact way out of proportion, into a cosmic friendship. It simply wasn’t so. Sorry. Pressed by his publishers, Yourgrau tried to keep the book on a popular level; thus almost no topic receives more than half a page of discussion. Anticipating readers’ rather short attention span, with the publisher wisely setting the slim book in huge print, the author races through Vienna coffeehouses, Hilbertian mathematics, the Fregean logics, logical positivism of the Vienna Circle, Wittgensteinian philosophy, Heisenberg’s uncertainty relations, the special theory of relativity, and as a bonus, the general theory of relativity and gravitation.

Nothing can be gained from this whirlwind tour except, perhaps, enough hearsay for small talk at the next party. For example, did you know that Gödel used to hide behind the furnace in the basement of his house? Did you know that he wore warm clothes even during the hottest summer, and that he ultimately died of malnutrition, caused by his paranoia? Is this what you always wanted to know? I doubt it. Aren’t there any more serious topics in Yourgrau’s book? Oh, yes. In order to explain Gödel’s incompleteness theorem of 1931, Yourgrau actually invests more time (does it still exist?), but the reader is wisely advised not to be intimidated and, if bored, to just skip the hardly comprehensible technicalities: “You can admire the music without attending to the words” (page 59). Then why bother to read anymore at all?

The book’s main thesis is simply balderdash. Yourgrau claims that Gödel proved time to be nonexistent (page 6): “He would make time disappear.” How? Just because one solution of Einstein’s field equations found by Gödel does allow closed timelike curves? The author’s statement is a sensational blowup and ripe for the shredder. Yourgrau scolds Stephen Hawking for demanding that proper solutions of the field equations not exhibit the time-travel feature, yet nowhere does Yourgrau say that the Gödel solutions are simply inapplicable to our universe. All the above statements are made for the sake of sensationalism and allegedly to rescue Gödel from obscurity; the whole last chapter is a strange defense of Gödel against other philosophical interpreters of the mathematician, as if the broader public were interested in Yourgrau’s excerpts of talks and quibbles at obscure philosophy conferences in Helsinki, Finland. I wonder how many readers will make it that far in the text.

Keen readers should look into Kurt Gödel: Collected Works (Oxford U. Press, 1986–2003), edited by Soloman Feferman and colleagues, if they want better information about his research. Biographies that are more straightforward than Yourgrau’s include John W. Dawson Jr’s Logical Dilemmas: The Life and Work of Kurt Gödel (A. K. Peters, 1997) and Torkel Franzén’s Gödel’s Theorem: An Incomplete Guide to Its Use and Abuse (A. K. Peters, 2005).

Not to be forgotten in A World Without Time is the author’s take on the role of philosophers. Yourgrau outs himself as a philosopher but recommends, if you too are one, not to let anyone know, so as to avoid being caught up in embarrassing questions about the hows and whys of the universe and all the rest. It’s better to say you are an architect, and leave it at that (page 164). Well, he must have had bitter experiences, and we all understand why by now.

Three of the book’s seven illustrations gratuitously feature Gödel with his wife, Adele, a former nightclub dancer. If you can resist that temptation as well, don’t get A World Without Time, and save yourself a lot of time—it does exist after all, and time is money, according to the pragmatists—money better spent elsewhere.